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Do we need a glacial policy?

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Imagine a whole lake fishing down a mountain at once, carrying ice and rock within it. This is the reality of the lesser known threat in the high mountains, which grows more common and occurs as the climate changes; the Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Global temperatures are rising, and glaciers are melting worldwide. The melting creates feeble, dammed glacial lakes that can violently burst, resulting in floods that devastate downstream communities. Many people lie in the shadows of glaciers, especially in the Andes, Swiss Alps, and in North Pakistan, our very own Himalayas-Hindukush-and Karakoram. Together they form the largest reservoir of ice outside the polar region.

Laws for Glacier Protection (GPLs) have been developed in Chile and Argentina to protect glacierised regions from the detrimental consequences of mining activities. In the existing legal environment, regulations may get prolonged impacting downstream populations and socioeconomic assets and impeding climate change adaptation plans. Both rules were written with receding and stationary glaciers in mind, ignoring the possibilities of glacial advance, fast glacier retreat, and the issues that come with it. Pakistan needs to focus on developing legislation on glaciers. Our parliamentarians must be schooled and sensitised over our melting glaciers, especially in light of rising global temperatures and booming eco-tourism in Pakistan.

These occurrences are sudden and unpredictable, with little or no warning when a dammed glacier lake bursts. Because the natural dams that retain glacial lakes are fragile, a little crack can soon grow into a catastrophic hole. Lakes are usually blocked by ice or a moraine, a mound of rocks and dirt left behind. In either situation, the rushing water transports dam material and continuously expands the crack. This implies that even little disruptions, such as heavy rainfall or a splash from a falling block of ice, might cause a significant flood. While a glacier flood usually destroys a moraine dam, ice dams often close up and break again. These ice-dammed lakes may even drain a refill cyclically.

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Scientists are attempting to examine these glaciers for eminent floods and offer time to prepare for the deluge, which is a complicated occurrence to anticipate. Other experts approach glacial lakes in different ways. The stakes are rising as our changing climate raises the possibility of glacier floods. Climate change is affecting the stability of glacial mountains. These changes serve as a reminder of how people have touched nature, as well as how nature will affect us in the future. According to the latest National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) report, flooding in Pakistan has been caused by record monsoon rains and glacier melt in the north, affecting 33 million people and killing at least 1,325, including 466 children with 636,940 displaced.

Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions yet is the eighth-most susceptible country to climate change. Rather than the low elevation plains, Pakistan’s northern highlands, which house the Himalayan-Karakoram-Hindukush glaciers, have held more heat than the world average during the last 100 years. The climate in the high mountains was much warmer than the national average. With decreasing rainfall and rising temperatures in Pakistan’s regions, it may be in the best interests of local communities to use glacial lakes as reservoirs for drinking water or subsistence agriculture, especially since demand for irrigation water is expected to rise as a result of global warming.

The snowline has been quickly migrating upwards, allowing biodiversity to move and precipitation in the form of rainfall rather than snowfall. The rapid rise in temperature regime has accelerated the melting of low-elevation glaciers. As a result, the creation of new glacial lakes and the extension of existing lakes have raised the risk of outburst floods. The increased risk of GLOFs and significant water cycle variability necessitate a coordinated global and regional approach to replicating knowledge, experience and success stories from one location to another. Pakistan needs the global community to mobilise resources; and concerned organisations should expand their ability to raise the density of their glacier/lake monitoring network, refine monitoring procedures, use novel research methodologies, establish robust infrastructure, and develop an early warning system for a comprehensive disaster risk reduction.

Omissions in previous and prospective GPLs can lead to social and environmental problems. Such conflicts can arise when intervention is required for glacial lakes, such as dam reinforcement infrastructure or glacial lake syphoning, or when supraglacial or subglacial lakes must be drained in arid regions where competition for water resources is fierce. Because authorising glacier intervention to control glacial risks might be used as a backdoor to meddle in the glacial landscape solely for economic interests, Pakistan is home to eco-tourism, be it mountaineering or hiking our Himalayas-Hindukush-and Karakoram ranges. GPLs should be clear about the interventions to preserve economic projects established in glacier regions.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2022.

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Opinion

Have a heart; have a truce!

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United Nations Secretary General António Guterres came to Pakistan to see with his own eyes the devastation of floods. After seeing the scale of flood waters, he was shocked. “I have seen many humanitarian disasters in the world, but I have never seen climate carnage on this scale. I have simply no words to describe what I have seen today: a flooded area that is three times the total area of my own country, Portugal,” he remarked. The same day, the Army Chief after visiting flood affected areas called for long term measures to prevent and survive future floods due to climate change.

Still on the same day, former PM Imran Khan addressing thousands in a rally in Gujranwala lambasted “imported government”, “neutrals”, and the election commission for not listening to the public and told the audience to wait for his call for protests and long march coming soon. The government is also not being seen as putting all priorities for the flood relief work. Where at least government leaders have tried to visit flood affected areas, I am not seeing it on top of their agenda. Deteriorating economic crisis has taken their most attention and remaining time is being consumed by ever increasing threat of a PTI onslaught on Islamabad. Instead of focusing on flood relief work, government officials are seen criticising opposition for hours on national media.

After hurricane Katrina, I was deployed for public health activities to New Orleans which was devastated by floods. Hurricane Katrina was one of the biggest natural calamities which the US has faced in recent history. More than 1,500 lives were lost, and billions of dollars of property was damaged. As it was major news on all US TV channels, I was watching all the devastation and had built a picture in my mind. But once I arrived in New Orleans which was still an abandoned city, I realised how wrong I was about the scale of devastation. Though water had receded, destruction was still there all around me. I remember standing close to a spot where one of the levees was breached and just looked around. For miles I could see no one but destruction. Even though I expected to see the damage, TV screens were not able to convey the scale which only a human eye could absorb. I was dumbfounded for some time. I saw someone’s picture close to a destroyed house, not knowing if she survived or not; I picked the picture and put it back on the front of that house.

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Our job was to inspect houses and see if they are free of medical hazards including dangerous funguses so that the population could start coming back. That allowed me to travel in a vast area and see the damage caused by waters. I still remember seeing big fishes two meters above the ground plastered on walls due to ferocity of water waves. Helicopters and small planes hanging on trees and houses moved hundreds of meters from their original place. There I realised that unless you come to a disaster area you can’t even imagine the scale of an issue. Same feeling I experienced in Pakistan’s historic floods of 2010.

Our floods in 2022 are no small matter. NASA has released a picture taken from space showing a new lake which is hundreds of kilometers wide formed in Sindh. One hundred and forty thousand women have to give birth in this month in flood affected populations. Dengue is on the upswing and reports of deaths due to gastroenteritis have already started coming.

Warring armies have made truce for Christmas, Eid or even polio vaccinations. Why could not the patriotic politicians of Pakistan (both government and opposition) have truce for a few months for the sake of very same population which they claim to serve or like to serve in future? If they still think that at this moment Pakistan should have some other priorities, then my advice to them is to just visit some flood affected areas and maybe stay there for just one night with the displaced population. I am sure they will change their mind. Please have a heart and have a truce!

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

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Opinion

Acquisition of emerging technologies by India

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Like the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization has also been working on the speed technologies to achieve the required penetrability for striking targets quickly.

Having already developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile in collaboration with Russia in June 2001, India has now been working on the development of its ranges, speed, lethality, stealth and penetrability. With a range of 350km, the missile can be launched from land, air and sea. It is reported to be the world’s fastest cruise missile with a speed three times greater than the speed of sound.

It is reported that India has also successfully produced BrahMos-II having a speed five times greater than the speed of sound and is termed hypersonic missile with maneuverability. It is also reported that India could increase its ranges to 1000km. Having claimed that BrahMos-II is designed and built indigenously, India has entered the club of countries such as the US, Russia, and China that possess hypersonic missile capability.

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The development of such missiles may have the following implications: it may provide offensive capability to India with confidence and incentive to strike first; it potentially tempts escalation dominance and power projection; and it is feared to increase the arms race and crisis instability among the South Asian nuclear rivals.

It is imperative to note that due to short geographical distances or border contiguity, any response time intercepting the incoming missile with hypersonic speed will be extremely difficult for either side despite the deployment of defense systems. It is believed that hypersonic missile with greater ranges and speed could defeat the deployed defense systems, thereby endangering the strategic stability between the rivals possessing nuclear weapons.

India’s recent “misfiring” of supersonic missile across the border into Pakistan is largely perceived to test Pakistan’s resolve and capacity to intercept the incoming supersonic missile. However, it is uncertain how Pakistan will respond differently if India fires such types of missiles carrying warheads with maligned intention. Presumably, India may be able to hit its targets, but Pakistan could surely come up with retaliation with similar speed and lethality. This in turn could endanger escalation to a serious military crisis.

It is difficult to ascertain how nuclear rivals could make sure the utility of hypersonic missile in the nuclear dynamics. Arguably, any emerging technologies, including hypersonic missile, provide confidence to the possessor to strike first. Therefore, under the rational logic of security dilemma, the acquisition of hypersonic technology could potentially destabilise the broader strategic stability particularly when the possessors get into an illusion to gain quick victories through hypersonic missile while presuming to eliminate the targets quickly.

Leading scholars argue that such emerging technologies tempt rivals for counterforce targeting strategies i.e. targeting the military installation, warheads and delivery systems of the potential adversaries before they could be used. Yet, many others would argue that effective countermeasures could neutralise such efforts against the use of such technologies in the presence of credible nuclear weapons that could potentially become destabilising particularly when the potential adversary has the temptation to go for preemptive strikes. For example, Professor Robert Jervis argues that the implications of nuclear revolution could be “many and far-reaching” i.e. crises will be rare, war should not occur, and the status quo relatively easy to sustain.

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Many countries possessing newer technologies presumably have got offensive in hope of quick victories but failed to do so since all such dangerous confidence in possession of such technologies ended up in serious and protracted military crises. That being noted, it remains uncertain how these technologies and counter-technologies in South Asia would end up entangling South Asian rivals for protracted military crises spiraling out of control.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

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Opinion

Myths around BRI

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Contrary to the capitalist ideologues’ diffusion that projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are driven by China’s grand vision to expand its global footprint and influence on the governments of other countries, they meet critical development requirements of the partner nations and help foster their economic growth and alleviate poverty.

The BRI projects have gained applause for their speedy implementation and low cost as well as inclusion of states both from developing and developed world. Chinese effort to put up a broader multipolar international governance system and cooperation in infrastructure development is stoking fears within the US that the world’s sole superpower may soon be losing its grip on global affairs.

Beijing’s win-win strategy challenges the Washington-led neocolonial world order which, for decades, ensnared the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the western debt trap through neoliberal economic policies. In order to blunt China’s and salvage America’s image, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his trip to Africa accused China of overburdening the countries with “crushing debts”.

Yet revelations from the UK-based campaigner Debt Justice — that Africans governments owe three times more debt to western banks, asset managers and oil trade than China and are charged double the interest — debunks the narrative being pushed by the US directly or through the parasitic states G7, competing each other for influence in Africa to suck the resources of the impoverished Africans.

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Demystifying the puzzle that African countries are heavily indebted to China, Tim Jones, Head of Policy at international debt charity, called it a “distraction”. He criticised the western governments for their failure to “compel” the companies to suspend debt repayments even during the pandemic as did China during the G20 debt suspension scheme.

In fact, whenever African governments found themselves in the lurch and looked toward China for relief, they weren’t disappointed. A study by the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies estimated that Beijing had played an important role in helping African countries to manage their debt by forgiving at least $3.4 billion of debt in Africa and restructuring or refinancing another $15 billion between 2000 and 2019.

More recently, China announced cancelling 23 matured interest-free loans of 17 African countries in addition to providing emergency food assistance this year to the least-developed regional nations. The affirmative action urged many economists and researchers to reject the US narrative about Beijing’s “debt trap diplomacy” or alleged Chinese attempts to gain political control, seize strategic assets and exercise influence over the African governments.

Some western observers assign the blame of Sri Lanka’s default to China, the country’s largest foreign funding source is in sovereign bonds or market borrowings, which contributes to almost 50% of its debt stock. Linking the country’s inability to pay for crucial imports with Chinese “debt trap diplomacy” are categorically rebuffed as Beijing accounts for just 10-20% of Colombo’s debt compared to a plurality of western allies or financial institutions, which are considered as the US strategic asset or where America has a veto power.

As Sri Lanka went into dire straits purely over internal issues, the western media used the debt crisis as a wild card to delegitimise the BRI and China’s international image. It accused the project of being an “essential tool” for China to export more goods and win construction contracts. After Colombo defaulted on foreign debt, China’s initiative and the Chinese-built port in Hambantota was attributed for the country’s nonpayment.

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Ever since the port became an iconic case to misrepresent China’s global infrastructure lending rather than Sri Lanka’s push to build a regional growth hub in Hambantota — an underdeveloped region devastated by the 2004 tsunami — CARI Director Deborah Brautigam denied it was a part of Chinese “master plan”. Indeed, several international companies had offered to develop the port before Beijing and Colombo in July 2017 signed an agreement of $1.5 billion to lease the deep-sea port to China Merchants Holdings Ports for 99 years.

CPEC, which is BRI’s pilot project, is one of the persistent targets of the US-led “debt-trap” campaign against BRI. Beijing’s promises to develop Gwadar port city are precisely impugned even though China has undertaken several projects to uplift the living standards of the local people under Corporate Social Responsibility.

Over the last seven year, Beijing has granted more than 5 billion yuan for establishment of New Gwadar International Airport with the longest runway in the region and capable of handling the largest aircraft, East Bay Expressway, 300-bed China-Pakistan Friendship Hospital, China-Pakistan Vocational and Technical Training Institute, China-Pakistan Gwadar Faqeer Middle School, China-Pakistan Fraternity Emergency Centre and a desalination plant.

China has recently provided 3,000 solar panels to the poorest of the poor in Gwadar for provision of electricity. The Gwadar Free Zone Phase-II and 300MW power plant projects are also underway. Patience, nevertheless, is the key as all these initiatives will pay back after a period of 15 years.

Again, Beijing has no role in Islamabad’s debt crisis. According to the World Bank, rising global commodity prices led to double-digit inflation in the country with longstanding structural weaknesses of the economy and low productivity growth posing risks to a sustained recovery. The Bank, however, projects the public debt as a share of GDP will come down gradually over the medium term as Islamabad manages to repay its loans to foreign creditors.

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At a time when UNDP estimates that 71 million people in the developing world have fallen into poverty in the three months starting March due to the war on Ukraine as a consequence of spikes in global food and energy prices — an impact much more powerful than Covid — the US should be encouraged to bolster efforts and assist the embattled government for providing relief to the poor rather than drawing links between freedom and prosperity to tempt China’s allies toward the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.

Even though the US condemnation of every single Chinese initiative has become commonplace these days, China’s blueprint of international peace and development is catching an unreserved support from the world. The message is clear: no matter how the US portrays the BRI projects internationally — and notwithstanding the western prevarication to accept the wholesome advantages of the initiative — both the international luster of the BRI and a deep global mistrust in the US-led nest of intrigue seems to be growing.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

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